Transgender businesswoman Michaela Mendelsohn is helping unemployed transgender people get what they need most: jobs. According to the most recent National Transgender Discrimination Survey, respondents reported experiencing unemployment at twice the rate of the general population. The outlook is even more bleak for transgender people of color.
Mendelsohn is the CEO of Pollo West Corp, one of the largest franchisees for El Pollo Loco restaurants on the West Coast. She has been working with local LGBTQ centers to hire transgender people, many of them people of color, at her restaurants for several years.
"I love walking into any of my restaurants and seeing what [looks] like the United Nations: [different] ethnicities, genders, nationalities. But as far as the transgender girls that I'm specifically working with, every one who I get to watch their life improve just fills my heart. I feel wonderful," Mendelsohn told NBC OUT.
Mendelsohn is the founder of the California Trans Workplace Project. The program secures jobs for transgender workers in collaboration with the California Restaurant Association. Under the program, the first 60 hours of an employee's wages are paid for with grant money from the California Workforce Development Board. Mendelsohn was inspired to create the program after hearing stories of what her trans employees had gone through while looking for a job.
"Most of them were instantly hirable, very qualified. They'd been out on dozens and dozens of interviews. [But] because someone recognized they were transgender when they showed their ID that didn't match their gender identity, they found some reason not to hire them," Mendelsohn said.
Their stories made Mendelsohn realize how lucky she was. She transitioned about ten years ago but didn't have to worry about keeping her job, since she was the boss. She took time off during her transition and reintroduced herself to her employees and colleagues at a Christmas party a year later.
"It was quite an experience," Mendelsohn said. "A very positive one actually."
"When I did realize how lucky I was [and] what a difficult time these women were going through, I started hiring more and more [transgender people] until I had about 12 percent on my staff," she added.
At Mendelsohn's restaurants, policies are in place that protect transgender employees. They wear name tags and use restrooms that match their gender identities — a privilege many of them were denied at previous work places. Mendelsohn said it's good for business.
"Because these [workers] are so happy to be out as their authentic selves in the workplace for maybe the first time in their lives, the customers completely see how happy they are," she said. "We had so many compliments on our call-in line from customers about these employees, our business started growing and doing better."
The jobs are entry-level, but they put employees on a pathway to management, Mendelsohn said.
"Over 25 percent [of] the transgender [people] we have hired have made their way into management," she explained. "That's a much higher percentage than normal."
The program isn't just about creating jobs for transgender workers. It's also bringing the public face-to-face with them, according to Mendelssohn.
"We're educating the public," she said. "We're going to give many of them the chance to get to know someone at a restaurant [who is] transgender."
The 64-year-old has always been business-minded. At just 12 years old, Mendelsohn started a car wash and hired kids in her neighborhood to work for her. By the time she was 21, Mendelsohn had her own coin machine, vending and video game business, which she said became the largest in California. She started Pollo West Corp in 1986.
Mendelsohn is also a volunteer. She's the first transgender board member of The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth. She participates on a suicide prevention hotline.
"I get to occasionally be that person that might be the last person [someone] ever talks to," Mendelsohn said. "And I realize that part of the problem is the way they're treated in the workplace. And that reflects everything. You need to make a living."
Mendelsohn is happy she gets to make a difference in her employees' lives.
"I can tell you I sleep better at night. And I wake up in the morning energized. I really enjoy what I can do for them."
OutFront is a weekly NBC OUT series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a positive difference in the community.